Health can feel like an overwhelming checklist of foods to eat, exercises to perform, and habits to follow. And, that’s before you have to deal with flip-flopping opinions that tell you to do something one day and avoid it the next.
But, there’s a much shorter checklist that might be more helpful and cause a lot fewer headaches.
Instead of worrying about what you need to add to your life, it might be easier to think about addition by subtraction.
Avoiding the bad means you’re more likely to be doing something good — and isn’t that the point?
Many years ago, Tim Ferriss created a “not-to-list” that applied to getting through life with less stress and frustration. It’s such a brilliant idea that I thought it should be applied to fitness.
In many ways, a not-to-do list is much more powerful than any version of “The 11 Best Foods You Should Eat,” the “20 Best Diets” or the “15 Most Effective Exercises.” What do all of these articles have in common?
They make it very clear that many things work with fitness and nutrition. So, picking the right plan is less about finding “the one approach that works” and more about finding “the right approach for you.” It’s a lot easier to accomplish if you avoid all of the garbage information that will lead you farther from your goals.
As with Tim’s original post, I highly recommend not trying to avoid all of these at once. Start with 1-3, master them (or, more accurately, just limit), and then add other items from the list as they apply to your health and lifestyle.
1. Don’t eat while working or watching TV.
You might believe that hunger alone is what drives you towards food. But, what you might not realize is that attention and memory also play a big role in how much you eat and whether you feel full.
Distracted eating — or having a meal (or snacks) while watching TV or working — is a sure-fire way to ensure that you don’t pay as much attention or remember what you ate. And that means you’ll be eating more during your meal or eat more later. The less you are distracted, the less you eat, according to The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
2. Avoid workouts that require time you don’t have.
If you’re going to be healthy, you need to make time for exercise. However, prioritizing movement does not mean you need to spend hours lifting weights or on the treadmill or bike. When you select plans, a primary consideration needs to be the total number of hours required and the amount of time you can realistically commit.
Don’t get it twisted: you might need to adjust your schedule to create time to prioritize your health. But, however much time you create should be something you can realistically accomplish.
If you pick a plan that demands too much of your schedule, you’re more likely to fall off the plan and become sedentary. That’s the opposite of what you want. (Research goes as far as providing data that a 60-minute workout doesn’t necessarily lead to more results than a 30-minute workout.)
Where to start? As a good rule of thumb, aim for, at least, 20-30 minutes of movement per day. This can be as simple as a walk at a brisk pace.
And, 2-3 times per week, try to include 10-20 minutes of intense exercise. In fact, if you have the right program, research suggests that just 1-minute of high-intensity exercise (along with a 10-minute warmup of moderate intensity) might improve your heart health and metabolic factors.
3. Do not buy over-the-counter fat burners.
American’s spend anywhere from 2 to 5 billion on fat-loss pills every year. That’s a mind-numbing amount of wasted money. While some supplements — such as caffeine — work to help your body’s thermogenic process (it increases heat production), the actual impact on the scale is minimal at best.
Simply put: fat burners might have a tiny boost on your exercise and diet plan, but it’s not likely anything you’ll notice. And, for the amount of money you pay, you might as well just drink coffee or black tea.
Better yet, stop depending on over-the-counter weight loss supplements altogether. They are fool’s gold.
4. Do not argue with people about which diet is best.
Many diets work. If someone is married to an idea, you’re unlikely to convince them otherwise. There are many ways to reduce calories, and infinite ways to get the nutrients your body needs. Some diets are more likely to work for many people, but the “best diet” is the one that works for you.
5. Do not ignore off days.
Your body needs rest. Your muscles need to recover. Your mind enjoys breaks. If you want better results, more effective workouts, and a body that won’t break down, then make sure — at a minimum — you have 1-2 off days per week.
6. Do not downplay sleep.
It might seem similar to prioritizing off days, but sleep and rest two sides of the same coin. Sleep abuse is an equal problem for people who exercise and those who don’t. But, it very well might be the healthiest habit you can master every day.
Getting enough sleep plays an important role for general health, muscle gain, fat loss, controlling hunger, mental clarity and focus, and general feelings of well-being.
If that’s not enough, research links sleep deprivation to: hypertension, obesity, and type-2 diabetes, impaired immune functioning, cardiovascular disease and arrhythmias, mood disorders, neurodegeneration and dementia, and even loneliness.
Get some rest and aim for anywhere from 7.5 to 9 hours per night.
7. Ignore “Magic Bullet” Diets.
Fat makes you fat. Carbs make you fat. Gluten makes you fat. Dairy makes you fat. Eating at night makes you fat. Eating breakfast makes you fat. Lectins make you fat. An acidic diet makes you fat. Your blood type makes you fat.
None of the above is true. But, you’ve probably heard that each is the “real” problem you need to avoid. The lists go on-and-one.
No single dietary food or ingredient is the cause of weight gain. If a diet suggests removing or adding one food will change everything, it’s usually a bad sign. When in doubt, focus on habits and behaviors over absolute restrictions. (And no, if you have a food allergy, removing it is not the same thing. That’s a health reason, not a cause of fat gain.)
8. Do not stress about exercise equipment.
Your muscles need resistance. Your heart needs to beat faster. Whether the resistance comes from bodyweight, bands, machines, or dumbbells shouldn’t be a primary concern. Whether your heart elevates from a walk, run, bike, swim, or something else also shouldn’t make you worry.
Move and sweat. That’s it. When your workout stops delivering results, you can make adjustments to increase the difficulty or work with a coach to help you achieve all your goals. But, equipment is still overrated and very little is needed to see a lot of positive change and transformation.
9. Do no overreact to research.
The goal of science is to come up with questions (hypotheses), test them, and share learnings with the rest of the scientific community (and the universe thanks to the internet).
Every study is not designed to be a definitive or absolute conclusion on a topic. It’s one more piece of information that leads to additional questions. We have more certainty when we have validity and reliability, which requires many studies.
Of course, new research is interesting. And, it’s good to ask questions. But, if you react to every new piece of science, you’ll lose your mind and never know up from down. It’s much better to rely on foundational principles that have been repeatedly tested, and be patient with newer information until there’s more certainty.
10. Do not grocery shop on an empty stomach.
You will buy every delicious treat in the store. It’s a trap!
11. Do not follow celeb workouts.
I’ve spent nearly 15 years interviewing and sharing workouts from celebs. It’s fun to learn about, and people like knowing their routines. But, for the most part, those workouts are not designed for the average person. And, it has nothing to do with genetics or your capabilities.
Celebs and athletes have different lifestyles and time commitments (see #2). They are paid to workout. Their schedule and resources are not yours. These actors and actresses pour their heart and soul into looking a certain way for a role. They don’t necessarily have other distractions or responsibilities.
That doesn’t mean you can’t set lofty goals or expect to see incredible transformations. I’ve been helping people do that for 20 years. But, it does mean that the plan (and time required) will be different than your favorite superhero.
12. Stop Doing Cleanses.
They don’t work. The detoxes are not worth the time or money. Any progress you make will be lost once you start eating like a normal human.
If you want to add a greens juice to your life, go for it. Replacing food with liquid for a short period of time is manipulation at the highest degree.
13. Don’t Blindly Blame Hormones. Or Toxins. Or Inflammation.
These are all scapegoats. Any “expert” who claims this is the issue without having your bloodwork is full of shit.
Hormones are designed to fluctuate. A temporary spike in insulin is not a bad thing. Seriously. Drinking whey protein (very healthy, by the way), will cause your insulin to temporarily skyrocket…and then return to normal.
Toxins are all around us. And some inflammation is good and designed to improve recovery and health.
Creating black and white thinking is the Achilles heel of the wellness industry. Focus on habits. If something seems off, see a doctor, get tested, and then determine if you truly have an issue that needs to be fixed.
14. Don’t train through pain.
“No pain, no gain” is terrible advice. More pain will result in less gain because you won’t be able to exercise or move the way you want. There’s a big difference between strain and pain, soreness and injury.
Push your body, but don’t break it. And, if you get injured, don’t force the issue — address it. There are plenty of ways to train around an injury, while also making sure you fix the cause of the problem.
Healthy behaviors are designed to make you feel better, not worse. Remember that whenever something feels wrong.
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If you like the idea of fillers that we talked about above but aren’t sure where to start, more personalization and hands-on support through our online coaching program may be right for you. Every client is assigned two coaches — one for nutrition and one for fitness. Find out more here.
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Adam Bornstein is a New York Times bestselling author and, according to The Huffington Post, “one of the most inspiring sources in all of health and fitness.” An award-winning writer and editor, Bornstein was the Fitness and Nutrition editor for Men’s Health, Editorial Director at LIVESTRONG.com, and a columnist for SHAPE, Men’s Fitness, and Muscle & Fitness. He’s also a nutrition and fitness advisor for LeBron James, Cindy Crawford, Lindsey Vonn, and Arnold Schwarzenegger. His work has been featured in dozens of publications, including The New York Times, Fast Company, ESPN, and GQ, and he’s appeared on Good Morning America, The Today Show, E! News, and The Cheddar.